aunt fran

YOUNG AT HEART: Aunt Frances, here with one of her nieces, is living testament to the theory that a positive outlook on life, kindness to others and occasional trips to the racetrack can help you overcome setbacks and remain fresh and vibrant at 95. 

“It’s sad,” my Aunt Frances said from the rehab facility in Holmdel, N.J. where she had been taken after breaking her femur a few days earlier when she reached up for a bowl of cereal and woke up on the floor. “All the people you see here are older people.”

It sounded as if she were excluding herself from that category, but I ignored the temptation to point that out, because Frances is the youngest 95-year-old I know. Besides which, I was happy just to be talking to her after the manner in which I’d learned of her situation from my cousin David, the oldest of her six sons.

He had returned a phone call I’d made to her on a Tuesday morning early that evening, and began his explanation by saying, “You heard about my mom?”

It wasn’t the tone of voice in which you impart really bad news about a loved one, but I had been surprised that David was returning the call, and with someone of Frances’s age, you never know. Once I got past that anxious moment, David told me that she would be in the rehab facility for about 10 days and then was going to be heading down to my cousin Phil’s house in Virginia for a longer period of recuperation.

‘Sorry About the Haskell’

“She said she was really sorry she was gonna miss the Haskell,” he said.

Actually, I told him, I had been calling to finalize our plans for the first of our two annual visits to Monmouth Racetrack that Saturday. We’d been going to the Haskell, New Jersey’s big race for 3-year-olds, since 1987, and in 1999 we’d added a second trip to watch the track’s major turf race for older horses, the United Nations Handicap, which it had inherited when Atlantic City Racecourse sharply reduced its operations before closing up shop in 2015.

When I got Frances on the phone, she said she didn’t want me going to all the trouble of visiting her. I told her we were going to Monmouth that Saturday anyway, and the rehab facility was just a couple of miles off Route 35, which would take me, my mom and my wife Gilda first to the Middletown Pancake House where we had breakfast with her on these trips and then most of the way to the track before veering off for the short-cut she had showed me 32 years earlier.

That Saturday was sunny and not too hot, and after a detour to pick up the mother of our older son’s girlfriend and a second one to get my mom in Brooklyn, we arrived at the rehab facility a bit after 10. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but there was my aunt standing up with the aid of her walker, her hair neatly combed and looking as if she’d skip out for the day with us if we could just sneak her past security.

We had figured on spending a half-hour with her and then going to breakfast, but stayed twice that long before an employee arrived to take her to physical therapy. We accompanied her down to the room where she would engage in it before saying our goodbyes, at least as cheered up by the visit as Frances seemed to be.

It felt like a good omen for the beginning of what I think of as my summer turf festival: two visits to Monmouth, 10 or 11 days at Saratoga—more all-day excursions than I would make to Aqueduct and Belmont during the remainder of the year. In mid-stretch of the United Nations Handicap that afternoon, it looked like my three key horses in the exacta and triple were going to hit the wire together and put me ahead for the day, until Hunter O’Riley, who had not won a race in nearly two years, stormed past them all at what seemed an overbet 14-1.

The Sunday after the Fourth of July, I called my cousin Phil and learned they had gotten Frances settled in with them a week later than planned, and were set to interview nurses the following morning to retain one to help her along with the rehab. By that point I was beginning to pack for the drive up to Saratoga that Thursday for opening day at the 166-year-old track.

From August to Endless

For most of the 20th century, it was known as The August Place to Be. Then the racing season stretched from 24 days over four weeks to 36 over six, and earlier this decade, to 40 racing days beginning on a Friday and concluding on Labor Day. In 2018, that meant the season began July 19; this year, the number of racing days stayed the same but the schedule became five days a week. Eliminating Monday racing meant there would be eight weekends of racing rather than seven, and that the opener would be July 11, a Thursday.

This meant a slight disruption in my schedule: rather than taking a Friday off from work and driving up to a motel room in Colonie, an Albany suburb about 25 miles south of the track, Thursday night with my mom, I took Thursday off as well and began the trip about 7:30 that morning. We hit enough traffic in The Bronx to make me late for the 11:15 handicapping seminar at the track that has been part of my Saratoga ritual for more than a quarter-century, but otherwise the day went well.

Rain had made the turf course soggy, but a filly with the apt name of Wegetsdamunnys came from dead last to win the seventh race and pay $7.70 for every $2 bet, making it a profitable day for me. The change in travel schedule paid an unexpected dividend: when we arrived at the Barnsider in Colonie for dinner and discovered there would be the usual wait to be seated, I asked the manager whether, if we headed up the street to check into our motel, we could keep our place on the list even if we weren’t back by the time our turn came up.

When he said yes, we drove the half-mile to the motel and put our bags in the room. Twenty minutes had passed by the time I told my mom we better head back to the restaurant. If we’d been sitting there waiting to be called for a table, she’d be getting impatient by now, but she scoffed at my suggestion that there was a need to show speed. When we arrived at the restaurant five minutes later, news that my name had been called and our table taken a couple of minutes earlier didn’t ruffle her, and another table opened up almost immediately.

The next morning, with 170 fewer miles to drive, we got to the track early enough for me to get my mom settled in our seats and then head downstairs for the seminar and a renewal of acquaintances with fellow attendees and Dodger John, the Brooklyn-born California transplant who flies in every Saratoga season to conduct them. Among those on hand was Al the Owner, one of the more-unassuming persons with paddock passes you’re likely to encounter. He names his horses whimsically, rather than based on their breeding, and had won a race the previous Labor Day with a horse named for Dodger John, and another one with a longshot named Fixed Income Larry in honor of a friend who offered his financial status as justification for his thrifitiness. On that day’s program, he had a horse entered named Good Shabbos, betraying religious convictions that might not be suspected based on where he spent his summer Saturdays.

A Near-Miss

“He’s got a shot,” Al said of his horse, which in his understated style translated to: you may want to bet a few bucks on him. The horse was the 2-1 second betting choice in the 6th race, and after breaking well, jockey Luis Saez eased him back from second to fifth while three other horses engaged the early leader, Vast, in a spirited early duel. Toward the end of the turn, Mr. Saez steered Good Shabbos outside the four front-runners and gained quickly on them as they turned into the stretch. By the eighth pole, he looked like a winner, but Vast, a first-time starter sent off at 12-1, kept going and held on by a half-length.

I looked over at John the Ex-Lawyer, sitting a row in front of me and a few seats closer to the finish line, who showed no discernible emotion. This might have seemed remarkable, considering that the summer before, after spending the season working for a Hall of Fame trainer, John gave up his law practice to work fulltime for the trainer, who had just gotten Vast to run like a horse with a future. But John had a formidable poker face when most patrons were yelling with gusto for their horses, and the previous summer, my wife had suggested I might want to emulate him and stop scaring some of our seat neighbors while embarrassing her.

I decided to honor her request, most notably during last year’s Travers Stakes, by limiting my rooting to a few emphatic finger snaps as Catholic Boy drew away through the stretch to pay $17.40. It wasn’t appreciably more dignified, but it was definitely a quieter form of enthusiasm.

In this case, John’s impassivity did not conceal a major score. When I sidled over to say, “You have that one?” he said with some ruefulness that he had not. The man for whom he now worked had for years lived in a summer home on a lake that was next door to John’s, and the evening before they had renewed an opening day tradition of having dinner together. When John mentioned Vast then, the trainer indicated he had no expectations of big things in the horse’s debut.

Things didn’t improve for me over the second half of the racing card. My best bet of the day, a 10-1 shot who drifted up to 20-1 late in the betting, was struck with a pari-mutuel thunderbolt soon after the horses left the gate and his price plummeted to 9-1, but his bid to make a late run was short-circuited when the tiring leader bore out into his path, and I wound up giving back most of what I had won a day earlier.

Exception to the Rule

The next day, I arrived at the seminar to discover Dodger John had moved up the starting time a few minutes, and he was already on the fourth race by the time I settled into my seat. One of the newcomers in the group mentioned that a friend had a piece of one of the first-time starters in the race and expected him to run well, prompting Dodger John to respond with some amusement, “Is there any owner who doesn’t like his horse’s chances?”

“Yeah,” I interjected. “Vast in yesterday’s 5th.”

My sister was driving up from midway on the Taconic Parkway, her annual day at Saratoga along with one of my nephews—in this case, the acting student who couldn’t bring himself to impersonate interest in the races. She arrived at her usual time—a race or two later than she’d estimated—which left me feeling guilty because I’d made a bit of a score on the early daily double and hadn’t bet a penny for her. Well, there’s something to be said for punctuality.

The feature race of the day was the Diana Stakes, a top race for females on the turf that attracted six entrants only because Chad Brown, the world’s best trainer, entered four of them. Those included Sister Charlie, who eight months earlier won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, earning her honors as the best grass horse of her gender, and Rushing Fall, a strong filly who had just run the best race of her life five weeks earlier on Belmont Stakes Day. The consensus at the seminar had been that it was a great race to watch but probably unbettable. I mentioned that Sister Charlie if she went off at 3-2 would be worth a win bet, and Dodger John nodded, but neither of us thought her price would climb much above even money.

It turned out, though, that Rushing Fall had been so impressive in her previous start that the bettors favored her over Sister Charlie, who hadn’t run in eight months, although she had already proven she could do her best even off long layoffs. I’d already made small wagers for my mom, sister and nephew, and a larger one for Gilda, and when Sister Charlie was still sitting at 2-1 two minutes before post time, I went to the window for myself with unexpected enthusiasm.

Charlie Hustles

The early part of the race featured scorching fractions set by another of the Brown horses who was being deployed as a rabbit to keep the non-Brown horse with the best early speed from getting comfortable in front. Rushing Fall, further off the pace than usual, launched her move toward the lead on the far turn, with Sister Charlie a couple of lengths off but now being asked for run by her jockey, John Velazquez. Rushing Fall blew by the leaders once they straightened away, but Sister Charlie quickly drew alongside her and won relatively easily under a vigorous hand-ride by Mr. Velazquez late and some rapid-fire finger-snapping from the Harpo Marx of the clubhouse seats. Her win price had dropped slightly at the end, to $5.60 for a $2 bet, but I was as pleased as if she’d paid three times that by my judgment being confirmed that she hadn’t been eclipsed as the Queen of Mr. Brown’s turf army.

The following Saturday was Haskell Day, but it wasn’t as festive an occasion as usual for reasons that went beyond Aunt Frances still being in Virginia and the forecast being for such intense heat that Saratoga had announced two days earlier that it was canceling racing.

The death of a friend earlier in the month, coming on top of the loss of a friend of more than 50 years 14 months earlier and my dad’s passing in March 2018 had thinned out our traveling party from 10 people in 2017 to just Gilda, my mom and myself. But Monmouth’s management assured everyone there would be enough of a break in the weather to run the races on its biggest day with no health risk to horses or jockeys, and so we got to the Middletown Pancake House by 10 and arrived at the track before 11:30 with high hopes.

A contingent from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was waiting, holding signs dramatizing the cruelty of thoroughbred racing and imploring those heading inside not to throw away their money in support of such a sport. One bettor sitting a few rows from me lamented being chided before he’d even bet a bad favorite, and I called to him, “You should’ve told them you weren’t giving the track your money; you’re here to make a withdrawal.”

Post time for the first race was noon, but the race wasn’t run until about twenty after, and there was a delay in running the second race as well. Shortly after 1:30, with the horses for the third race still not on the track, an announcement came over the public-address system that only the stakes races for the day would be run, and they would not begin until 6 p.m., with the Haskell scheduled to be contested at 8.

An Early Departure

If Aunt Frances had been with us, I would have made a case for going to the Outback in Middletown for a leisurely lunch and then returning late in the afternoon. But with no Saratoga races to bet for the next four-plus hours, I couldn’t see much sense in hanging around, and Gilda and my mom couldn’t see any at all. So we drove back to Brooklyn, had a late lunch and then dropped off my mom and headed back to Queens. The extreme heat caused enough of a power outage to affect both TV and Wi-Fi reception in my house, and after an hour’s wait didn’t improve the situation and the races had already resumed at Monmouth, I told Gilda I was going to drive over to Aqueduct to watch and bet on the Haskell. My horse got caught in a three-way speed duel, then was interfered with on the stretch turn and backed up from there, and all I could think was, at least I was 15 minutes from home rather than having to drive back from the Jersey Shore.

A week later, the heat wave had broken and Gilda and I drove up Friday evening for Saturday’s races. Al the Owner had 5-1 shot named Put the Glass Down who looked pretty solid, especially with the likelihood of a fast pace to help her late kick. He said he had told his jockey, Jose Ortiz, to sit back early and just make sure he went wide with her around the last turn because the inside seemed to be where the going was the heaviest.

Sure enough, the early pace was strong, and Put the Glass Down, who was next-to-last early, began passing horse on the far turn and picking up momentum. For some reason, Mr. Ortiz, one of the top three jockeys in the nation, ignored Al’s advice and moved up on the inside as the leader began to shorten stride. As they raced through the stretch, though, Put the Glass Down wasn’t gaining as rapidly, and the front-runner moved well off the rail, giving Mr. Ortiz even more of a clear path, but managed to hold on by a neck.

Three races later, I wasn’t lamenting that misjudgment. Jose’s brother Irad had just ridden a perfect race in the Jim Dandy Stakes—the prep race for the Travers—by taking a 9-2 shot named Tax to the lead, yielding it when War of Will, the winner of the Preakness but an overrated horse based on that victory, surged past him out of the clubhouse turn, and then rallied when they turned for home while holding off his kid brother aboard the favored Tacitus, who had stumbled badly at the start and worked his way back into the race along the tiring rail.

Out of Left Field

Gilda, getting her first look at my silent rooting technique for this year’s Saratoga meeting, was impressed, although my body language was emphatic enough that no one would confuse me with John the ex-Lawyer. The next afternoon, back in Queens, I was so busy showing her sister Tata the replay of the race that by the time I switched over to the day’s first race at Saratoga, they had just galloped by the finish line and the camera stayed with the winner, Cleon Jones. It wasn’t that I would have wagered on a horse just because he was named for a favorite Met outfielder from the 1969 championship team that upset me: it was that the jockey was wearing the silks of Al the Owner.

I was subsequently told by a friend of his that Al had told people not to bet the horse based on his disappointing debut race a few weeks earlier. I couldn’t help but notice, though, as the horse was paraded in the winner’s circle, that Al looked a bit dressier than his usual outfit of flannel shirt and old jeans: his shirt looked freshly laundered and he was wearing dress sneakers and a spanking-new Mets cap.

A week later, Gilda and I were back for Whitney weekend, which would have been a total wipeout except that on Sunday I picked the 13-1 winner of a race with a $750,000 pot to cut my losses in half.

Two days later, I went to see my friend The Bomber in his office the day before my annual Wednesday play-hooky trip to Saratoga. It happened that The Bomber had his one-horse stable ready to run on Thursday—a horse on which he’d gone unusually high for a man who looked to find bargains for modest prices, and who had run two disappointing races before showing signs of life when given a rider switch to Irad Ortiz. The Bomber had told me that Irad liked the horse, but he was on a shorter-priced horse for Thursday and an apprentice jockey named Benjamin Hernandez, who had been on the horse for his second disappointing start, was back aboard.

“Was that your choice or Irad’s?” I asked.

“Mine,” the Bomber replied, noting the seven-pound weight concession he would be getting for using the apprentice and the fact that he had previously cashed a couple of big bets on Mr. Hernandez, although he acknowledged that those were cases where the rider finished second and third and filled out triples and superfectas for him at inflated odds.

Counting on a First

I didn’t bother to point out to The Bomber that Mr. Hernandez was winless in 30 mounts at Saratoga, a place where it is generally tough for apprentices to win races because so many good riders—from Kentucky and California as well as New York—are competing. I remembered him telling me years ago about someone dismissing his bet on a horse because the rider at the time had one win in 38 mounts at an Aqueduct meeting; when the horse won at large odds, The Bomber turned to the guy, said “2-for-39,” and walked to the cashing window.

But I did tell him that I was going to bet about one-third of what I would have on his horse if Mr. Ortiz was riding it, which I said would probably be evened out by the horse going off at three times the price he would have been if Irad was aboard.

The Bomber was making one of his rare trips to Saratoga for the race. It would also be a get-together with an old friend and betting partner who had a son who was developmentally disabled but loved horses. He said in response, “Look for me in the winners’ circle.”

My Wednesday trip to the Spa with my friend The Skipper was a lot of fun, but not at the betting windows, although The Skipper, making just his third trip to Saratoga, wound up making money for the day by listening to his son-in-law’s analysis.

Thursday was another story.

In his first two starts for The Bomber, his horse had broken from the gate slowly, compromising his chances. Irad Ortiz got him to break smoothly, get the lead and hold it until deep stretch, when a horse ridden by brother Jose went by him. Whether Irad had figured something out or the horse’s trainer had, this time Benjamin Hernandez got him to leave alertly, positioned him behind two dueling leaders, and moved him to the front before they came out of the far turn.

Watching in my office late that afternoon, my first thought was that he might’ve moved too soon. When the betting favorite in the race—the only horse I’d played with him in the exacta—closed in to within a length by the eighth pole, I was ready to give up on winning, the thought “just don’t blow second” running through my head. But then Mr. Hernandez went to the whip a couple of times, and abruptly the horse moved away from his pursuer, drawing off to win by nearly four lengths. He paid $17.40 to win—a lot more than he would have with Mr. Ortiz aboard—and the exacta with the favorite second came back at $55 on a $2 bet.

One Joyous Supporter

I had no trouble spotting The Bomber in the winners’ circle, but the person who caught my eye was a young man who he had said was in his early 30s but looked about 17. He had an ecstatic look on his face, one that seemed even more joyous than Mr. Hernandez, who as The Bomber might have put it, was now 1-for-31. It was a riveting sight, one that The Bomber—not generally a sentimental guy—admitted he was moved by when I called to congratulate him the following day.

We didn’t go to Saratoga that weekend; Gilda had seized on my not looking to be there as the perfect time to throw herself an early 60th birthday party. The week after that, driving up to Colonie on a Friday night, she asked whether we could maybe skip going to Saratoga the Saturday before Labor Day and instead go to my son’s housewarming in Virginia.

We had already made plans to visit him a couple of weeks after that to see the house and take in a Nationals-Braves game in Washington once she’d told him we would be upstate the day of the housewarming. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal to her at the time, but now that she was asking, I said yeah, I could always watch the big race at Saratoga that day, the Woodward, on an i-Pad, and bet it on it as well. Midway through a losing Travers weekend that was partly salvaged by cashing a bet on a horse that my friend Stu owned a small piece of, I told John the Lawyer that I wouldn’t be coming up for the Woodward, but I was reasonably optimistic that they would run it again in 2020. He smiled and nodded.

We wound up watching the race in what was going to be my son’s backyard once he had a chance to do something with it. A 3-1 shot named Preservationist, who’d gotten alternately clever and dumb rides from Junior Alvarado in winning a big stake at Belmont and then losing the Whitney with a premature move, this time got Smart Junior, who left for position, waited for a hole to open in the stretch,and got up by a half-length to cash the last significant bet of the Saratoga season for me.

Another Reunion

The following morning, we left our motel in Fredericksburg and headed north up 95 before shifting over to the Beltway and detouring to Annandale. My cousin Phil and his wife Maria met us at the door, and right behind them, looking quite good just a couple of months from a scary fall, was Aunt Frances.

We hugged and kissed and caught up. Maria brought lunch to the table while two of their three kids shuttled in and out of the house. Phil and I wound up on the sofa, and he told me that the last couple of weekends they had been able to see the races from Saratoga on his cable system and his mom had been wondering who I was betting on and how I was doing.

Gilda had wanted to leave early enough to get home while it was still light out, but we stayed three hours before we said our goodbyes. Frances said she was hoping to go home by early in the fall, when her son Kenny would be getting off the Merchant Marine ship he was on and returning to Jersey for a while. And maybe, she said, once he had to go, his shipmate Bubba would come to town and give her someone else around the house, along with the neighbor up the street who would stop in regularly to say hi and see if she needed anything.

It thrilled me to hear her talking that way, because it meant that there was a good likelihood we’d be hitting the Middletown Pancake House for breakfast before the year was over, and could start planning for the Haskell next July.

Gilda and I wound up in a rest stop at the lower end of the New Jersey Turnpike toward sunset grabbing something quick for dinner. I had lost money in my trips to Monmouth and Saratoga, and unlike the year before, hadn’t had the consolation of a good bet on the Travers winner to make up for the bad bets and tough beats along the way. But I thought of something The Bomber said to me when I’d stopped by a couple of days before the Travers, after he mentioned how relieved he was that his horse had won that race a couple of weeks earlier.

‘Might Actually Get Out’

“Well yeah,” I said, “because it occurred to you that you might actually get out on the horse,” the expression used by bettors for recouping their losses and by owners to describe winning enough in purses to cover the purchase price and the training expenses of the horse.

The Bomber replied that this was part of it, but not all. There was the whole experience of that day, he said, of being able to spend it with his old friend because of the horse running at a place where it was convenient for both of them to travel, and the excitement of him winning and what it had meant to his friend’s son being in the winner’s circle and slapping five with Benjamin Hernandez and the rest of their group.

“Who’s to say I didn’t already get out on the horse?” The Bomber said.

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